Spiritual Lessons the Hard Way by JC Andrijeski
I’ve had a pretty unconventional relationship with spirituality and religion, really for most of my life. I was raised Catholic, and remember as a child wishing I could be a priest. I had no interest whatsoever in being a nun, or even really in being a conventional, ‘go to church every Sunday, feel bad about my sins and do the occasional picnic and/or charity event’ Catholic. I tried arguing theology with my teachers in Catholic school, to no avail.
Some were patient with this…some, not so much.
Probably around the time I became interested in boys and parties, I lost interest in the Church. I didn’t really feel a place existed for me in all of that, and I already found myself struggling with the implied conformity required to fit into that world, even at its margins. So I continued to ask the same questions…only now I asked them of my stoner, musician and artist friends instead, some of whom were into pretty whacked spiritual practices themselves. I read books and tried hallucinogens before all of that felt like a dead end to me, too.
After that, I pretty much buried myself in politics and more conventional philosophy in an attempt to impact the world in some more materialistic sense. Even so, religion crept in at the margins as I studied its impacts on social movements and caste systems, and even the very motivation and identity of those who fight to better the world. But this approach didn’t make me happy, either. I got disillusioned with politics, too, mainly because I noticed all of the same problemmatic mindsets, attitudes and egoistic thinking as I’d noticed everywhere else, no matter what side of the divide people identified with, or how loudly they yelled.
So for awhile I did…nothing.
I worked on fiction, delving into fantasy worlds, creating characters who might save the world for me, I suppose. I obessed on men I thought I was in love with, drank, partied, vied for attention with all of the other jostling, shoving, attention- and purpose-deprived humans of the world, and tried to tell myself this was ‘normal.’
Yeah, well. That didn’t really work, either.
I finally broke down on the street in New York City, where I lived at the time.
I found myself standing on Fifth Avenue, crying for reasons I couldn’t articulate to myself fully, and knew something had to change. I ended up moving back to San Francisco less than six months later, abandoning my PhD program and heading West to ‘find meaning,’ which for me meant going home, to the Bay Area. For a number of years I became a sponge for every kind of odd, hokey, traditional, new, old, out-there and conservative form of spirituality I could find. I did a kind of ‘taste taste’ of whatever I happened across…which, let’s face it, in San Francisco, is a big, crazy smorgasborg of whack. I also started studying martial arts.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a meditation school.
Well, more like ‘fell on,’ as in, ran along blindly, hit a major speedbump in my personal life and sprawled head-first into it without having any idea of what I was doing.
The whole story behind this is complicated, and would take too long to go into here, but suffice it to say, I was at probably one of the most vulnerable moments in my life, although I didn’t fully realize it at the time. Partly because, in most respects, the period directly before that time had been the very best period in my life. I was engaged to a man I loved dearly, I was loving the writing, had great friends, adored living in San Francisco and our life there, was doing surprisingly well in martial arts, etc.
So yeah, I was past the ‘searching for meaning because I was miserable’ thing. I was really the happiest I’d ever been, so I have to assume whatever discontent I felt with the trajectory in which my life had fallen lay at a much deeper and more fundamental level.
That was twelve years ago.
I’m now living in India, that man is married to someone else, and I’m writing full time and studying Tibetan Buddhism. I’m doing the last of these as a total newbie, for what feels like the umpteemth time…which really shouldn’t bother me but still does when I’m in the wrong mindframe. Another cliché, I know…but I didn’t exactly get here through the “Eat, Pray, Love” route, either.
In fact, the meditation school I initially stumbled into like a brick wall ended up being, for want of a better, shorter explanation…an esoteric Christian- and Hinduism-based, quasi-cult of personality that emphasized developing one’s energetic structures in an effort to develop ‘super-human’ status in the quest for enlightenment, by which we would help all people, (presumably). Unfortunately, not so much emphasis was placed, at least not in the day-to-day, on becoming a wiser, less self-cherishing, more compassionate, more mature or more spiritual person in the ways that actually matter, at least in my opinion now.
And yeah. I hear you.
Once you finish laughing, I will say in my defense that I learned a lot.
If nothing else, it really taught me what matters…at least to me…in terms of spirituality. It also taught me that the world is a lot bigger, stranger, and more complex than I’d ever dreamed. It was also an extremely humbling lesson in what can happen to even a more-or-less intelligent, well-educated and reasonably-balanced person in a sincere search for place and purpose. I can’t say I regret any of it, because I recognize that I would never have made it to where I am now if I hadn’t gone through that experience first. On the other hand, I still halfway expect that the purpose of my life is, in part, to serve as a warning to others. I have this frustrating tendency to do everything the hard way for some reason, seemingly without fail.
At this point, my focus on spirituality has grown exceedingly simple.
That sense of wanting to help the world hasn’t dissipated for me in this. If anything, it’s grown stronger as I shed things over the years, and as I realize that what I want in this life doesn’t really matter all that much. The dearth of a more ethical and compassionate stance towards other people and the natural world is slowly killing us…all of us. To me, that is what matters. Really, the challenge now is whether I can teach myself to care about others more than myself well enough to become a part of the solution instead of the problem.
The key is to remember I’m a human being. Simple, I know, but I think in all of our striving for importance, acceptance, love, fame, money and so forth, we forget that simple thing. If one sees oneself as a human being, it’s a lot harder to convinve yourself that your needs and wants are more important than those of others. On my good days, it can even involve seeing all others as a tremendous gift, whether they ‘help’ or ‘hurt’ me, ignore me or decide I’m a living emanation of the Great Golden Light of Bethuselah.
Meditation is still a part of that, too.
I mean, let’s face it…this world is a noisy, distracting place, full of hand-waving, ego-trips, harshness, bad advice, cynicism, negativity, manic diversions, advertisements, superficial pleasures…and a lot of incredibly bored, purposeless people who don’t know themselves or the true contents of their own minds. As a result, many of us have no idea what we are doing here.
On the extreme ends, this can result in depression and anxiety as we struggle with this seeming pointlessness. So yes, to me, meditation is absolutely invaluable in terms of getting a better handle on these extremes, and developing a sense of myself…even just by simply giving myself the space to be. Through some of the monks and teachers here, I’ve also seen that, taken to sufficient lengths, meditation can also make you into an incredibly kind person who brings nothing but happiness to others. I’ve met people who completely blow my mind with their kindness and compassion…people who literally think of others before themselves, not just sometimes, but seemingly all the time, even in instances when to do so harms them personally. Not all of these people are Tibetan. Some are German, Dutch, French, Japanese, Columbian, Chinese, Mexican, Australian…and yes, even from the United States.
It really is possible to change your viewpoint from one that is always putting yourself first. It’s possible to change that voice is your mind that is always asking ‘what you I get?’ to one that is asking instead, ‘what can I give?’
It’s possible. Helping the world, and other people, in some small way is possible.
So yeah, my only advice is…don’t give up.
Don’t give up.